One Kook’s Safari: Looking for a surfer-to-English dictionary?

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A goofyfoot longboarder takes a backside ride off a point break. Some surf jargon sounds pretty gnarly, but most of it is just descriptive. A goofyfoot longboarder takes a backside ride off a point break. Some surf jargon sounds pretty gnarly, but most of it is just descriptive. A few days this summer, the waves rolled in too small to push a board. A couple of other days saw essentially no waves at all: a flat, blue expanse to the horizon.

It looked lovely, but there was nothing to ride.

A couple of other days were complete blowouts; there were strong waves, but they were breaking all over the place. Each wave was plenty strong enough for a ride, but it could break almost anywhere, and there was no form to the wave aside from that wash of whitewater.

I came back in after trying my luck on one such morning while the lifeguards were setting up for the day.

“It’s Victory at Sea out there,” I told the guard as he was setting up the flag defining the guarded area.

“Oh yeah? Congratulations,” he said, looking amused and puzzled.

I mentioned the exchange to someone else, who patiently explained to me that victories are good things, and since I was out at sea, I obviously meant I had a good session. But I was trying to say I was hanging on for dear life, tossed around by a capricious ocean. It was like playing in a big washing machine.

I’m not sure how widespread the term is, but it seems universally used and understood the same way by local surfers. The consensus is that it comes from an old documentary of the same name that used military footage to detail the naval battles of World War II. It aired in the 1950s, but the opening scene showing an imposing, storm-tossed sea continued to be aired into the 1970s, and clearly made an impression on the burgeoning East Coast surf culture.

It’s also a rare example of surf slang that gets used and isn’t lampooned. I don’t think I have ever heard a Jersey surfer use the term “tubular” expect in jest, and “gnarly” just isn’t part of the scene. It’s just as well: the slang term has been defined as meaning both “awesome” and “awful, ugly.” As a description of a wave, gnarly’s plain old English definition of having gnarls or twists would indicate imperfect conditions, and may be why the word is connected to danger as well as indicating skill.

A surfer makes a cutback on a summer wave, and looks stoked about it. A surfer makes a cutback on a summer wave, and looks stoked about it. “Stoked” is one of the few surf slang words I hear in bad movies and from good surfers. It’s a great word to get across the thrill and fun of riding a wave. Anybody can be stoked, dropping in to a 12-foot hurricane swell or standing for the first time on a nice ankle-high beach break.  Sometimes it’s a noun: A surfer is always ready to share the stoke.

Most of the terms used by local surfers match surf slang around the world: A grom or grommet is a young surfer; to be goofy footed is have your right foot forward on the board; a barrel is the space inside a hollow wave, if there’s enough room for a surfer to ride in there. A kook is, of course, a surf columnist near the end of a long summer, or an unskilled beginner with little regard for the rules and etiquettes of surfing.

The most local of terms at the southern Jersey Shore is, of course, “shoobie,” a fairly mild term of derision for visitors. An email to from a Philly surfer asked for a definition of the term, wondering if he should be angry with his buddies who kept calling him one.

The term has been used since at least the 1950s, probably earlier, but used to be contained to Cape May, Atlantic and Ocean counties. It changes to “bennies” north of LBI. It became much better known when it was used in the cartoon “Rocket Power” on Nickelodeon, set in southern California but with Jersey influence. 

For the most part, what may seem like hopelessly opaque jargon is merely descriptive. The breaking wave includes the bottom, the face and the lip. It starts to break at the peak, and the clean water beyond that break is the shoulder. For a point break, some fixed object, usually a jetty in South Jersey, means the waves usually break in the same spot, and the surfers ride away from that object. Surfers can ride either right or left from a beach break, which are most of the waves in this area, but there is a greater chance for a closeout, which means the whole wave breaks at once instead of peeling away from the peak.

When someone talks about backside or frontside, it just means facing toward the wave or away from the wave. For most surfers, a right, meaning turning to the right from the peak of the wave, will mean a frontside ride, while a goofy foot surfer will get a backside ride.

Turning back toward the whitewater is called a cutback, a more manageable maneuver on a shortboard than a longboard.

A bomb is a big wave, typically one that is bigger than the rest of the sets for the day, breaking farther from the beach. That could mean a surfer getting caught inside, meaning being on the beach side of the broken waves. On the outside, the unbroken waves will just pass under your board until you decide to take off on one. On the inside, the whitewater tries to take you with it. The worst spot is the impact zone, where the force of the wave is directed down.

When a break is “firing,” it means a big swell with clean, ridable waves is rolling in, but if you wipe out, you may “get worked,” meaning you are underwater, getting beat up by the force of the wave. Getting worked isn’t fun.

Waves for this weekend look likely to approach “Victory at Sea,” but clean up to some gnarly tubular bombers for next week. I’m stoked. 

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